Colourful fishing villages, fresh seafood, sandy beaches, astonishing marine wildlife, and friendly locals who can’t wait to share their unique history and plentiful produce with you! That’s the essence of Canada’s east coast comprising the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland & Labrador, the Atlantic Canada few visitors know, but would do well to visit. It’s a whole new world, as Ivor Vaz found out last spring…
If the Columbus in your soul seeks more, then dare to go beyond the well-travelled trails of Niagara Falls, Okanagan Valley, Lake Louise – all silver stars of Canada’s signature series, no doubt. Mine did seek that little bit extra! That’s how I discovered a slew of lesser-known but equally spectacular destinations – and a string of these beautiful hidden pearls can be found on Canada’s east coast. Comprised of four provinces on the country’s Atlantic coastline – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland & Labrador, ‘Atlantic Canada’ has wonderfully different locations to explore, underpinned by a distinct and welcoming maritime culture and super-friendly locals. So I hopped aboard my turboprop and made my way to the first of these ‘whistlestops’ – St. John’s.
ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR
Sometimes, you have to take the road less travelled before the real journey begins. In Newfoundland & Labrador, a former colony and then dominion of the United Kingdom, there’s enough coastline wrapped around the province to stretch across Canada four times over. So whether you take a hike along ancient footpaths, pack a picnic and watch for humpback whales, or head out to sea to hunt for icebergs, you’ll find it all comes standard with a great ocean view.
When it comes to viewing icebergs, this is the best place in the world. Their sheer size will amaze you, and that’s without seeing the 90% still below the surface of the ocean. On a sunny day, these 10,000-year-old glacial giants are visible from many points along the northern and eastern coasts. They come in every shape and size, with colours from snow-white to the deepest aquamarine.
St. John’s, the capital city, plays host to a wealth of outdoor exploration, festivals, shopping, and restaurants. The city is the oldest existing city in North America, with a rich history and distinct Irish and British heritage. Exploring its landmarks and rugged Canadian landscape, it won’t take you long to realise why National Geographic named it one of the ‘Top 10 Oceanside Cities in the World.’ If you want to get a real feel of St. John’s, soak in the history and the beauty at Signal Hill, the city’s number one attraction. Topped with a wind-whipped stone tower and standing over the wild Atlantic coastline, this National Historic Site of Canada was once home to fierce battles and world-changing events. Learn of the conflicts waged here during the Seven Years’ War, when British and French troops vied for control of the continent. You’ll also be discovering the birthplace of modern communication, as Signal Hill received the world’s first transatlantic radio transmission. As St John’s number one destination, Signal Hill is a must-do for any visitor.
A 15-minute drive from the city brought me to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America with its stark white lighthouse set against rocky cliffs and the seemingly endless Atlantic. Watch icebergs float by and whales breach. Get a glimpse into the life of a 19th century lighthouse keeper in the oldest lighthouse in the province. There’s also ‘The Rooms’. Built on the site of an 18th century military fort, this facility houses the province’s art gallery, archives, and provincial museum. Art and artifacts, historical records, cultural treasures – all of the influences that made Newfoundland what it is – can be explored under one roof. Finally, there’s Quidi Vidi, a historic fishing village just a short drive from the heart of town, where I spent a day mingling with the locals and basking in the charm and personality of the city. If you’re thirsty as me, do as I did – visit the Quidi Vidi Brewery, home to the craft beers that Newfoundlanders love, and sample their Iceberg beer made with pure 25,000-year-old iceberg water.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
A flight down south brought me to my next destination, Nova Scotia, one of North America’s foremost seacoast destinations where you can immerse yourself in a culture that ranges from traditional to avant-garde. Hit the road in this picturesque province and wind your way past colourful townships, iconic lighthouses, wineries, farmlands and markets. Head to Cape Breton Island and drive the incredible Cabot Trail, and immerse yourself in the historic seaside capital city of Halifax, which you can experience on foot, or by bike, boat, bus, Segway, or kayak! Or hop aboard the amphibious ‘Harbour Hopper’ and rediscover the kid in you.
Halifax is home to the largest number of pubs per capita with most featuring live music. The waterfront boardwalk offers visitors an assortment of unique shops, popular restaurants with waterfront patios, and even a vendor marketplace alongside a waterfront beer garden that serves up local crafted beers and ciders – all with unobstructed views of the busy harbour. With annual festivals like TD Halifax Jazz Fest, Halifax International Busker Fest, and Halifax Seaport Beer Fest taking place along the waterfront, there is no shortage of entertainment. One of the top places to hang out is the Halifax Citadel, which has long watched over the harbour and downtown core of the capital city. Originally built as a military fortification to protect the Empire from enemies (and the occasional pirate), today the Citadel and its distinctive Clock Tower act as a reminder of Halifax’s rich past. If you want to get hands-on with history, dress like a Highlander and become a solider for a day – get to hold and fire an authentic rifle just as they did in 1869.
While Nova Scotia’s southern and eastern side’s saddle up to the Atlantic Ocean, the western side of this Maritime province sits on another noteworthy body of water – the Bay of Fundy, home to the highest tides in the world. With over 100 billion tons of seawater flowing in and out of the Bay twice each day, the region has unsurprisingly become a hub of outdoor adventures. But there’s a lot more to enjoy as you explore the small, waterfront towns that dot the entire coast. If you have a couple of extra days in your itinerary, pencil it in red!
One of the highlights of my Bay of Fundy visit was the dining experience at Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound, located in a rustic fishing village in the beautiful Annapolis Valley. Locals and visitors flock to this tiny fishing village to sample the world-renowned Bay of Fundy lobster. Choose from an array of seafood delicacies (the Lobster Poutine and Lobster Mac & Cheese is usually their safest bet) in the waterfront dining room, from where you can marvel at the monster waves lashing the rugged coast.
(This article is sponsored by Destination Canada)